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Doris Ansari 29 April, 2011

Posted by Jeremy Rowe in News, Personal.
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Doris Ansari, the Leader of the Cornwall Council Liberal Democrats, announced yesterday that she will be standing down from her position at the Group’s AGM in May.

Doris has had a 40 year career in local government, starting on Truro City Council in 1971 (the year I was born). She became a Cornwall County Councillor in the 1980s going on to Chair the authority between 2005 and 2009. She has been Lib Dem Group Leader since the birth of Cornwall Council in 2009.

Doris has been an amazing figure throughout her time in local government, leading the charge on Objective One funding for Cornwall and bravely fighting serious illness along the way. She has led the Lib Dem Group with poise, dignity and a forensic knowledge of the workings of local government, and I wish her the very best for the remaining two years of this Council and beyond.

Weakened Tory leadership limps on 28 April, 2011

Posted by Jeremy Rowe in News.
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The Packet newspapers are reporting that the Conservative Leader of Cornwall Council squeaked home by a margin of 24 votes to 18 at last night’s AGM called to resolve the challenge to his authority from backbencher Fiona Ferguson.

This hardly represents a ringing endorsement of a sitting leader and begs a whole series of questions as to how much authority he now has for the remaining two years of the Council. A 24-18 margin would be a good result for a Leader being elected for the first time, as the process starts with an open field and such an election is normally an opportunity for the participants to formulate a future vision.

Such figures for an incumbent tell an all together different tale. If the Conservative leadership of Cornwall Council is unable to persuade half of its own membership that they are on the right track, then what does that tell the rest of us. For the Tories this is probably the worst of all worlds – no clean break, no strong display of support, only a narrow escape for the Leader. If only four Tory backbenchers had been persuaded to switch the administration would be in open meltdown this morning.

The debate now moves on to how the Leader will paper over the cracks. Will he go to the expense of appointing ‘Cabinet Support Members’ to keep the ringleaders of the rebellion quiet, or will he go the whole hog and make wholesale changes to the Cabinet? Perhaps he may bury his head in the sand and try to plough on without changing anything. Given last night’s numbers, none of those options will look like a show of strength and vision from a tired-looking administration.

What of the Independents, who are in coalition with the Tories at County Hall? The ones who have spoken to me seem embarrassed by the whole episode and find it extraordinary that such a process has been carried out in such a public manner. Perhaps the Leader doesn’t merely have to persuade nearly half of his own group to stick with him – maybe his coalition partners will take their turn to remind him that their support should not be taken for granted either.

Tory showdown at Kingsley Village 26 April, 2011

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Kingsley Village, Fraddon is the scene for the latest showdown between the leadership of Cornwall Council’s Conservative group and their increasingly fractious backbenchers. Andrew Wallis has had a good old blog about the open sores affecting the Council’s ruling group and those gloriously indiscreet sources within the Tory mire are more than happy to play the numbers game in the Members’ Room at County Hall.

Apparently Fiona Ferguson will be proposed as challenger to the Leader and her people estimate that she can command at least 19 votes from the Tory group compared to the incumbent’s worrying 16 (the remaining lucky 13 have yet to declare their intentions). There also looks set to be a new Deputy Group Leader with a run-off between a councillor from the Restormel area and one from North Cornwall (as both of these contests are straight two-way fights at least they won’t have the embarrassment of using a form of AV, as the Tories do for almost every other internal election).

There are those at County Hall who feel that the Leader is in real danger but I reckon he’ll squeak home in the end. How much damage the Tory group will have inflicted on themselves in the process is anyone’s guess, however. Will a wounded Leader be forced to accommodate his previously vocal enemies, and just how much of a show of strength will that really be?

Proceedings (behind closed doors, naturally) will get under way at 6pm this evening (Wednesday) if you fancy popping along for a heckle from outside.

“Health and Wellbeing” 20 April, 2011

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Item 11 at this morning’s Cabinet meeting concerned the setting up of a ‘Shadow Health and Wellbeing Board’ to oversee the Coalition government’s proposed changes to the NHS. I won’t go into tremendous detail about it here because a) there isn’t enough space and b) I’m not sure I have a full grasp of the changes anyway, if I’m being completely honest. (This link may provide a useful starting point if you want to start to come to terms with the enormity of what Andrew Lansley is proposing.)

Opinions are sharply divided about the effect the so-called reforms will have on our Health Service – for what it’s worth I think the proposals represent a dangerous and unnecessary leap towards privatisation – but the fact remains that local councils will have to have some input on the process when (after a ‘pause’) Lansley puts his amended proposals forward. For that reason Cornwall Council will need to have taken some steps in the right direction.

It is for that reason that I spoke in today’s debate to give a cautious welcome to the Council’s view that it should be an ‘early implementer’, but I also made clear that – when the board overseeing the changes is up and running – the work that it does must be clearly and openly presented to the Cornish public. As part of that request I put in my now traditional plea for the use of Plain English. I hope someone’s listening.

Elisabeth Sladen 1948-2011 20 April, 2011

Posted by Jeremy Rowe in Personal.
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I was sad to hear the news last night that the Doctor Who actress, Elisabeth Sladen, has died from cancer at the age of 63. Growing up I was a huge fan of the programme, particularly in the era when she starred alongside Tom Baker, and she was always the definitive Doctor Who assistant for me. Three decades on and my own children came to love her in the spin-off series ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’. Such a cross generational appeal is a rare thing and she will be sorely missed.

No end in sight for the Tory leadership crisis 18 April, 2011

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Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting promises to be an interesting affair, to say the least. Tucked away at Item 12 on the agenda are a series of recommendations which may “as a matter of urgency” lead to the appointment of ‘Cabinet Support Members’.

These are posts provided for in the Cornwall Council Constitution, but the Tory leadership has, until now, been quite dismissive of the idea. Back in the early days of the administration (when we still used to hear about “openness and transparency”) any extra expenditure was frowned upon. Cabinet Support Members were seen as an unnecessary waste of resources and doubts were cast as to the worth of these additional ‘helpers’. What value would they add? Could anyone find something worthwhile for them to do, or would they simply rack up the mileage attending pointless conferences?

There has been a sudden change of heart. As Alex Folkes and Andrew Wallis speculate, there is a suspicion that this has more to do with keeping the leadership’s backbench critics quiet than it has to do with improving the quality of the Cabinet operation at County Hall. Who can say? But what is clear is that the disgruntlement on the Tory benches still refuses to go away. I still expect the Leader to survive, but the feeling among many at County Hall – and particularly within the Independent group, the Tories’ partners in the administration – is that the cost will be the appointment of Cabinet Support Members and the accompanying impact on the Council’s budget of another ten Special Responsibility Allowances (or at the very least some extra mileage claims).

This all leaves the potential for a continuing sore to fester in the Tory group. If there are ten posts on offer, four will have to be offered to the Indies which means that there will only be six openings for Conservative backbenchers. Given that the Tory ‘rebels’ are thought to number in their twenties, will half a dozen new jobs be enough to draw the sting out of the month-long coup? If not they will face the worst of all worlds: additional Member costs, no meaningful changes at the top and the Cabinet having to work with people who wanted them out just a few days before.

For what it’s worth, there may well be a decent argument for Support Members (some of the current Cabinet could certainly do with a little extra help and advice) but I would like to feel that they were being appointed for the right reasons. I hope the Cabinet will be able to clearly explain their rationale on Wednesday, because handing these jobs out to calm down a domestic situation would be a needless – and expensive – gesture.

(You can see the live or archived webcast of this month’s Cabinet meeting here.)

Wadebridge Police Enquiry Office to be withdrawn 18 April, 2011

Posted by Jeremy Rowe in Local Matters, News.
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The Devon & Cornwall Constabulary have announced that a number of Police Enquiry Offices are to be withdrawn, including the desk at Wadebridge Police Station. It is important to emphasise that the station itself will not be closing, but the Constabulary’s inevitable budget cuts have nevertheless led to the withdrawal of this valuable public facility.

Overall the Devon & Cornwall Police will be reducing the number of Enquiry Offices from 57 to 21, and the number of ‘principal sites’ will be reduced to three: Charles Cross (Plymouth), Exeter and Torquay. It is regrettable that none of these is in Cornwall.

AV – A once in a generation opportunity 12 April, 2011

Posted by Jeremy Rowe in Politics.
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On Thursday 5th May voters across the UK will have the opportunity to have their say on the system we use to elect our MPs. One senses that the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) has yet to fully capture the public imagination, yet the vote to replace the – at best Victorian – First Past The Post system (FPTP) represents a once in a generation opportunity to change the way we do politics in this country.

In all honesty AV isn’t the point from which I would be starting the process of electoral reform. It isn’t proportional, for one thing, and in this regard the Single Transferable Vote (STV) would be a far better option. AV does however have the benefit of maintaining MPs’ direct link to their constituencies while reducing the need for tactical voting. It also combats the current problem of political parties only chasing the votes that matter to them in marginal constituencies – I believe that parties should be made to open a dialogue with all of us, not just the swing voters.

Of course there are differing views on this. Some earnestly believe that a voting system designed for a two-party system is still relevant in the current multi-party era (although they seem to struggle to advance any positive arguments). Others see it as an opportunity to protest about other things which have no connection to the question being asked of us on 5th May. (At least in the latter case there’s something approaching a nuanced argument, I suppose.)

There is also the viewpoint that the referendum offers a golden chance to give Nick Clegg ‘a kicking’. While this may be tempting for many, if you believe in the need to change our out-dated voting system this hardly achieves anything. (The blogger ‘March The Fury’ advances a good argument on this point and he would hardly be described as a friend of the Liberal Democrats.)

The bottom line for me is that, if AV is rejected in May’s referendum, we won’t have another chance to reform our medieval voting system for another generation. We will be stuck with a system which promotes the arrogance of the safe seat, exaggerates the influence of the swing voters in the marginal constituencies and perpetuates the distortion of tactical voting. AV may not be perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. A ‘Yes’ vote on 5th May will also open up the possibility of of additional progress further down the line. A ‘No’ next month will close off this debate for a very long time.

Tories in turmoil as Leadership crisis rumbles on 7 April, 2011

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After yet another crisis meeting it seems that the Conservative group on Cornwall Council are no nearer settling the differences they apparently have with themselves.

The bulk of Cornwall’s Tory councillors met ‘in secret’ on Wednesday to try to thrash out their divisions over the direction of the Council’s leadership and ruling Cabinet. My sources within the group tell me that there was open defiance from members who wouldn’t normally say “boo” to a goose and that they’ve added the heavy-handed obliteration of the Cabinet’s Parking Panel to their ever-growing list of grievances. The possibility of a direct challenge to the Leader at the AGM in six weeks has in no way diminished, I am told.

Of course, for seasoned Tory watchers none of this can come as any surprise. It is a favourite Conservative pastime to steer a blade into the backs of their leaders when times get tough, but there is a serious consequence to all this megalomaniac self-indulgence – who is supposed to be running the Council while they make a complete Horlicks of thrashing out their differences?

Progress on Second Home Voters 7 April, 2011

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The BBC’s Graham Smith, who – along with Angus Lamond – has made much of the running in the continuing battle to bring transparency to the issue of second home owners casting their votes in Cornish elections, reports that 947 people who had previous been ‘eligible’ have been purged from the electoral register.

This is a welcome step towards ensuring that Cornish elections are fair and that the outcome represents the view of the people who live here all year round. It has always seemed strange to me that the electoral system should allow for people who often only spend a few days here to have a direct influence on our representatives, whether at national or local level.

Given how close some of the results were in 2010 (George Eustice won Camborne & Redruth by 66 votes for the Conservatives) the averaging out of 158 voters per Cornish constituency shows how profound the effect of second home voters might be. It has taken much badgering but credit where it’s due – the Council’s electoral staff, led by Richard Williams, have made a real effort to tackle the concerns we have been raising for some time now.

There is still more that can be done of course, especially in the national context. How many of those 947 people also cast a vote at their main residence elsewhere? It is currently impossible to tell, and it may well be that none of them did. Nevertheless there is a gap in the national procedures in this area. How difficult should it be for various local authorities to share information to ensure there is no multiple voting? Deputy Prime Minister, over to you.